If they didn’t, it wouldn’t still exist
These are the rules and properties of the patriarchy:
Might makes right and those who are strong control those who are weaker.
Men hold the bulk of both political and economic power as well as moral authority in society.
Traits that are considered masculine like control, competitiveness, and stoicism are more desirable for everyone than traits that are considered feminine like empathy, nurturance, and cooperation.
Little boys must be tough and action-oriented; little girls must be pretty and docile.
Boys and men must never embody anything remotely feminine because anything feminine is deemed as less-than.
“The core cultural ideas about what is good, desirable, preferable or normal are associated with how we think about men and masculinity.”
In a pyramid-shaped hierarchy, you must constantly dominate or risk being dominated. If you don’t win, you lose.
The rules are enforced through creating fear, the threat of pain, coercion and the ostracization of those who will not comply.
“Patriarchy is generally not an explicit ongoing effort by men to dominate women. It is a long-standing system that we are born into and participate in, mostly unconsciously.”
Why did ancient women ever agree to this in the first place? I think the simplistic version is probably the same back then as it is today — greed and fear!
Patriarchy is a social system that came into being about 10 thousand years ago along with the advent of agriculture. It was a time when small bands of hunter-gatherers that had previously roamed together following food sources began settling down in one place to farm instead. When there is owned land and more private possessions than ever before in human history, being able to pass these down to your heirs becomes important.
How paternity came to be central after it wasn’t for 97% of the existence of Homo Sapiens is way beyond what a blog post can address. What is important to note, though, is that once paternity becomes important, controlling women is inevitable, because only by controlling women can it be reliably known who the father is. There is an irreducible distance between the biological father and the offspring that can only be eliminated fully by imprisoning a woman and preventing any other man from having access to her. This is why patriarchal societies by necessity become societies of control and separation. We have become so habituated to this state of affairs that most of us don’t even see that it is our own creation.”
Patriarchy allowed for stratification not only between men and women but in the larger society as well. For the first time, you’ve got social castes and elites. Rather than sharing nearly everything for the good of the tribe, individual families are able to accumulate wealth, land, status, and power that belong solely to them. Having become a society of control and separation, you might as well see how much you can get for yourself out of it. If you don’t have power, what can you get out of being proximate to or aligned with a man who does? The men who are the most aggressive get the most power, but also have the responsibility for protecting the rest. When no-one owned much beyond what allowed them to feed and clothe themselves each day, there is no need to steal or to kill others for what they have. But if someone’s trying to steal your cattle, your land, or the wealth you’ve accumulated, it’s good to have an aggressive and powerful protector. Having more means that you also have more to lose.
More than half of White women voted for Donald Trump, despite his obvious disdain for women. Why? Because in a dominance hierarchy, you want to try to hold onto the highest position possible in any way that you can. White women might be lower on the pyramid of power than elite White men, but at least they are still above everyone else. A study of exit poll data from the 2016 election confirms this hypothesis. If you can’t hold the apex position, at least you can make a deal for second place, and that is better than being even lower down, or worse yet, last. Higher up is a place that is not only more prestigious and comfortable but also a place that is safer. Being under the wing of someone in power is a better place to be than out in the cold.
Many women uphold patriarchy, despite the ways that it disadvantages them, because of the ways that it feeds into greed and fear but also an unwillingness to pay the price for bucking the system. Misogyny is the policing arm of patriarchy, and women who deviate from what is expected of them by patriarchal standards often find themselves facing censure and punishment for that — from men but also from other women. But also, this is the ocean we’ve all been swimming in our entire lives and all of recent human history. And because we’ve absorbed the rules (as stated above) through a kind of cultural osmosis, adherence to them is often subconscious.
This is the issue Olga Silverstein tackles head-on in The Courage to Raise Good Men. Commenting that many people still believe that mothers compromise their sons’ masculinity, she writes: “Most women, like most men, feel that a mother’s influence will ultimately be harmful to a male child, that it will weaken him and that only the example of a man can lead a son into manhood. Single mothers, in particular, are haunted by the dread of producing a sissy.” Homophobia underlies the fear that allowing boys to feel will turn them gay; this fear is often most intense in single-parent homes. As a consequence mothers in these families may be overly harsh and profoundly emotionally withholding with their sons, believing that this treatment will help the boys to be more masculine.
hooks, bell. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (pp. 45–46). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.
These are some of the other ways that women uphold the patriarchy:
Maintaining gender binaries; enforcing what is considered appropriate for boys or girls, rather than letting each child be who they naturally are.
Obsession with female appearance and body image; both their own and that of other women.
Shaming men and boys who show emotion or vulnerability.
Participating in policing female sexuality by using terms like slut and looking down on women who are sexually confident and self-expressed. This includes, but is not limited to, the denigration of strippers and sex workers.
Upholding the traditional nuclear family as the ideal, rather than embracing a variety of nurturing and supportive family styles.
Not acknowledging that patriarchal norms limit and harm men too.
If we are ever going to have a real chance of creating a more kind, inclusive, and gentle society, women need to understand how patriarchy not only works against them but how it works against everyone but a few elites at the apex of the power pyramid. And women must do their part to dismantle patriarchy that is internalized or otherwise upheld within their families, relationships, and greater lives. The only hope we have of truly dismantling the patriarchy is to take ownership of our part as women and to smash that as well.
© Copyright Elle Beau 2020
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.
Special thanks to J Apple Muncy for encouraging me to finally get around to reading bell hooks. I’ve been working on this piece for some time in my mind, but beginning The Will To Change is what got me to put it all down on paper at last.